Florida's theme parks begin reopening with COVID-19 precautions
AT: David Fake
Special to Amusement Today
ORLANDO — After unprecedented closures in mid-March due to COVID-19, all but one of the Florida theme park resorts have reopened their parks. As expected, along with the reopenings came many health and safety changes. For the parks, it will be far from business as usual for the foreseeable future due to the necessary reduced capacities and new or enhanced health and safety measures. Because of the global visibility of the Florida parks, all industry eyes have been on these parks to see what their reopening plans include, with major focus on what health and safety measures have been made, how they are being administered and how they are being enforced.
The path to reopening began immediately after the parks made the difficult but necessary decision to close indefinitely in March. Soon after closing, the parks, eager to bring back employees and guests, met with local and state leaders, who were also keen to have the parks open, hoping to bolster the struggling economy. After all, it is no secret that the theme parks are major employers, and Florida’s main industry is tourism that is driven by these very parks. Florida’s local and state governments deferred back to the parks and tasked them with researching and designing their own reopening plans to then be presented for approval. To develop these plans, all of the major parks have said they heavily consulted with health and safety leaders locally and internationally, and took into strong consideration the guidelines of the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), World Health Organization (WHO) and the International Association of Amusement Park and Attractions (IAAPA), which created a guide map to reopening for its members. IAAPA also happens to be headquartered in Orlando. The plans that the parks brought back for review and approval were individually presented. Ultimately, every proposal was green-lit, and the parks began announcing their reopening dates and plans. Then, after almost three months of closures, the parks began to reopen, one by one.
Legoland Florida Resort in Winter Haven opened on June 1. Universal Orlando Resort’s three gates, Universal Studios Florida, Islands of Adventure, and Volcano Bay opened to the public on June 5 after several days of soft opening exclusively for team members, then passholders. SeaWorld Entertainment followed suit on June 11 by opening its three Orlando parks, SeaWorld Orlando, Aquatica Orlando, and Discovery Cove, as well as the company’s two Tampa parks, Busch Gardens Tampa Bay and Adventure Island. In the Theme Park Capital of the World, it is only the original theme park giant, Walt Disney World Resort, whose six parks remain shuttered, but are currently scheduled to begin reopening on July 11.
While Legoland Florida, Universal Orlando Resort and SeaWorld Entertainment parks have led the way for major theme park reopenings in the U.S., it is important to note that they were not the first parks to reopen in Florida. Orlando’s smaller parks Fun Spot America, Gatorland, and ICON Park’s Orlando Starflyer, Madame Tussauds, and Sea Life Orlando Aquarium attractions all opened over two days, May 22 and 23, more than a week before the first of the major theme parks.
When it comes to the specifics of the parks’ new and enhanced health and safety measures, there are many. So many, in fact, all of them could not possibly be addressed here. However, on AT’s visit to the parks, observations and comparisons were made that seemed the most important to share.
Immediately recognizable was that the parks shared many aspects of their reopening plans. The most obvious of these is the requirement to make online reservations before visiting the parks, and upon arrival, the new no-contact, instant temperature screenings for all guests prior to park entry. Even before guests go through the required security screening and bag check, team members take each guests’ temperature. If a guest registers an elevated body temperature (≥100.4°), the guest and their party will be asked to wait in a temperature-controlled environment for several minutes after which their temperate will be taken a second time. If the guest again registers an elevated temperature, they and their entire party will not be granted entrance and will be asked to return at another time to enjoy the park.
Additionally, all parks are smattered with new signage informing guests of new operating procedures, health and safety requirements and reminders of best practices for washing hands and socially distancing. Also common are the social distancing markers on the ground wherever there is potential for lines or groupings of guests. The markers appear at all temperature screenings, security screening, restrooms, retail shops and carts, food and beverage queues, and, of course, ride queues. All parks have eliminated single rider queues and heavily promote their newly enhanced web apps that include maps, wait times and now health and safety information. At some parks, the apps also include virtual queue registry for the more popular attractions which tend to have long lines.
Each of the resorts also has several unique aspects to their reopening and operation procedures. For instance, Legoland is the only major Florida theme park that does not sell masks and does not require masks to be worn by guests. However, masks are strongly encouraged and available, complimentary, if a guest would like one. Legoland Florida has turned off all water fountains for safety reasons and has added more than 200 hand sanitizing stations. The SeaWorld Entertainment parks have vast quantities of hand sanitizer readily available every few hundred feet throughout the parks, while the Universal Orlando Resort parks only have hand sanitizer available for purchase (unless you are boarding a ride vehicle). The Universal Orlando parks do have additional signage in walkways near every restroom that remind and encourage guests that routine and proper hand washing is strongly encouraged.
As for sanitizing ride vehicles, at Universal parks, hand sanitizer is required and a single squirt of which is administered to each guests’ hands by a team member before boarding an attraction. The ride vehicles are only periodically disinfected. The SeaWorld parks disinfect their ride vehicles after every guest. Legoland Florida, like Universal parks, only periodically sanitizes vehicles. Unlike Universal, however, they do not administer hand sanitizer to each guest before boarding, but it is readily available throughout the park.
While all three parks’ websites and online apps include health and safety information, Universal Orlando Resort and SeaWorld Entertainment parks have an additional message of warning on each page that states, “Exposure to COVID-19 is an inherent risk in any public location where people are present; we cannot guarantee you will not be exposed during your visit” along with a link to “Review Important Safety Guidelines.”
Park leadership has expressed their excitement to be able to bring back team members and again be welcoming guests to their parks, and they want the public to know that they have been working feverishly to make the guests returns as enjoyable, comfortable, and safe as possible, even in the midst of a pandemic.
Legoland Florida’s general manager, Rex Jackson, had this to say when AT visited the park on its reopening day: “We feel very good about and are confident in the health and safety measures we have taken. What you see implemented here today is going to be the new normal for the foreseeable future. We truly believe that our guests will respond well to these changes, and they will become part of our regular operation and expectation as guests come in to have that family fun day at the park that Legoland Florida is known for.”
SeaWorld Entertainment’s interim CEO, Marc Swanson, told AT, “We couldn't be more excited to reopen our parks and welcome guests back. Over the past three months, we have worked with state and local health officials, third party medical and epidemiology experts, and attraction industry leaders to enhance our strict health, safety and cleanliness protocols. Operating in this environment is new for everyone — and we’re already seeing that our guests are excited to come out and enjoy the parks with our enhanced safety measures. While this has been an unprecedented time for the industry, we are confident in the resiliency of our business and that we will emerge an even stronger company.”
In an open letter to Orlando guests on Universal Orlando Resort’s reopening day, Bill Davis, president and CEO, shared these sentiments: “Today Universal Orlando Resort ends its two-and-a-half month period of closure as we begin a phased reopening to the public. Getting us here has been an in-depth process, and I am incredibly proud of the ways our team members have listened to experts and implemented new operational guidelines for the safety of our guests. At Universal Orlando Resort, we are following what we’re calling the three Ss. That’s screening, meaning we’re taking everybody’s temperature before they enter; sanitization, because we are constantly sanitizing areas and high-touch surfaces in the parks; and spacing, providing markings and reminders throughout our resort so guests can socially distance themselves from other parties.” The heartfelt letter can be read in its entirety on the resorts’ website.
When AT visited the three resorts and their parks, almost every team member encountered at each park greeted guests with a hearty “welcome back!” They, too, were excited to be back to the business of making memories for guests. The genuinely excited and friendly demeanor was palpable and helped put to rest some of the wariness of being in the parks amid a pandemic.
While the parks are now open and ready to welcome guests back, there are still those guests who are not ready for the amusement park experience. Some are still too uncertain or not yet able to venture out into public areas due to underlying susceptibility and risk, even with the new proactive health and safety measures in place. There are also those who are not willing to adhere to the additional measures. The parks realize and understand both viewpoints.
Universal Orlando Resort’s Bill Davis addressed this issue in his open letter: “If you are ready and set to come back, to let loose in our parks and enjoy all our destination has to offer, we are more than ready to welcome you. If you are hesitant for any reason to come back now, we will be just as thrilled to welcome you through the arches when you’re ready as we are today.”